Every week we feature a Q&A session with one of our Crime Cymru authors so that they can tell us a little bit about themselves. This week, Mark Ellis discusses his books set in World War 2 London and gives us an insight into how he goes about the business of writing.
Give us a brief introduction to you
I am a thriller writer from Swansea. Prior to commencing life as a full-time author I had careers as a barrister, business executive and entrepreneur. I write a crime series set in World War 2 London featuring a Scotland Yard detective called Frank Merlin. This period in British history has always fascinated me. I grew up under the shadow of my parents’ experiences in the war. My father served in the wartime navy, contracted a wasting lung disease and died a young man when I was seven. My mother used to tell me stories of watching the heavy bombardment of Swansea by the Luftwaffe from the garden of her parents’ house on a Llanelli hill, and of going to tea dances on holidays in London under the bombs and doodlebugs.
My first Frank Merlin book was first published in 2011 and my latest, the fourth, in November 2019.
Can you tell us about your work in progress?
I am currently working on the fifth book in the Frank Merlin series. My plan is to follow Merlin’s police adventures all the way through the war from beginning to end. I also aim to set the fictional stories in their authentic historical context. Real events and characters mingle with fictional ones. The first book, Princes Gate is set in January 1940, the time of what is known as ‘the Phoney War’. The story of the second, Stalin’s Gold, takes place in September 1940 against the background of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Merlin At War, the third, is set in June 1941, just before Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and the latest, A Death In Mayfair, takes place in December 1941, the month of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. My new, as yet untitled book, is set in August 1942, at a time when the forces of our new American allies were pouring into Britain and things were beginning to turn in Britain’s favour. The plot revolves around stolen art, espionage, and racial disharmony in the US Army.
Tell us a little about your character’s background?
Frank Merlin was born in the East End of London to a Cockney mother and a Spanish father. His father, Javier Merino, was a seaman from Corunna who fell in love with Agnes Cutler, a Limehouse ship chandler’s daughter and decided to settle in London and get married. In due course Javier and his wife took over the family chandlery business. After a while, tiring of his neighbours’ difficulties with the pronunciation of his name, he changed it to Harry Merlin. In turn, his young son, Francisco Merino, became Frank Merlin. At the time of the books, Merlin is in his early 40s and runs a Scotland Yard team focussed on serious crime. He is a lean, rugged dark-haired man of six feet. At the beginning of the series he is a mourning widower, but his personal life improves as the books progress.
Could you tell us about your writing routine?
I have a small studio at the end of the garden and I write there. I usually set myself a weekly target word range. This can vary, depending on the stage I’m at with the book. The current range is 6,000 to 7,000 words a week. My normal routine is to sit down and start writing at around 9.30 and go on until 1. Then I do two or three hours after lunch but this is more likely to be research or editing than original drafting. Up until the current book, it has been my practice to write the first draft in longhand and then transcribe it onto a computer for editing. However after writing 30,000 words of the new Merlin in longhand, I decided to try working directly on the computer. I have done another 20,000 words this way and so far it seems to be working fine.
How many times do you go over a book before publication?
I like to compare a writer’s work with that of a sculptor. A sculptor has one advantage over a writer in that he has a piece of working material – stone, marble or whatever – to work with from the outset. The writer has to create the working material, the first draft, from scratch. In my case, once I have that, I am in the sculptor’s position and start chiselling away. Typically I redraft my books about 25 times.
Do you think of the twists first then the story, or does this change every time?
No, I don’t think of the twists in advance, nor do I plan the story in advance in any great detail. I have my series period, World War 2, and the first thing I do is decide the exact month in the war in which the book is going to be set. In my last book this was December 1941. In the book I’m writing now, it is August 1942. Before I put down a word, I spend about three months intensively researching the specific time period. This usually gives me ideas for storylines. When researching A Death In Mayfair, I read somewhere about the large number of British film studios which were operating in London during the war. This led me to base my story around the film industry. However, I did not at the outset, and never do, work out the plot in advance. I start writing, a few plot lines emerge and I set them running. Then, when I’m about three quarters of the way through the first draft, I have to work out what happens. This can be a little nerve-wracking but so far it’s always worked for me.
Is getting an agent the golden key to traditional publication?
In my case not. I am now traditionally published (by an imprint of the Headline Publishing Group). Getting to that position was a long and tortuous process, as I’m sure it is for most authors. I briefly had an agent when I started out. He gave me excellent advice on my writing but was unable to find me a publisher. We parted when he retired and I chose not to look for another agent but to try and find a publisher for myself.
Who have been the biggest influences on your writing?
I can best answer this question by listing a few of the authors I particularly admire and enjoy. I don’t really have any idea whether these authors have influenced my style. Some reviewers have compared me very kindly with one or two of the featured writers. Whether there is any truth in their comparisons I leave for others to judge. The authors include, in no particular order of preference, Georges Simenon, Graham Greene, Dickens, Trollope, Willkie Collins, Alan Furst, Patricia Highsmith, William Boyd, Agatha Christie, PD James and Michael Connelly.
What are some of Frank Merlin’s favourites?
Sport – Football
Drink – Fullers London Pride Bitter
Artist – Van Gogh
Book – The Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Arthur Quiller Couch (Merlin is a huge poetry fan)
Song – C’est À Capri sung by Tino Rossi
What are some of your favourites?
Film – The Third Man
Singer – Van Morrison
Comedian – Kenneth Williams
Sport – Rugby
Actor – Cary Grant
Read more about Mark Ellis.
To discover Mark’s books, follow the link here to his Amazon page.
From all the writers here at Crime Cymru, we hope that our readers are well during these interesting times. Stay safe!